Talk to Your Pediatrician About Behavior Problems

Mother talking to child's pediatrician
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Annual checkups for kids are usually filled with conversation about a child’s physical health. Some pediatricians extend the conversation beyond the child’s height and weight and ask questions about mood and behavior. But not all doctors ask those questions.

Just because a doctor doesn’t ask about a child’s behavior, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mention it. In fact, doctors offer a wealth of information about mental health and behavioral issues and they can provide referrals to appropriate community resources. If you have concerns, don’t hesitate to ask questions or bring issues to a doctor’s attention.

Research Reveals Parents Aren’t Talking

A 2015 report published by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health shows that many parents aren’t bringing up emotional and behavioral issues with the pediatrician. Here are a few highlights from the survey based on responses from 1,300 parents of children ages to 5 to 17:

  • 51% of parents would tell the doctor if their child’s temper tantrums were worse than other same age children.
  • 50% of parents would tell the doctor if their child seemed more worried or anxious than usual.
  • 37% of parents would tell the doctor if their child was having trouble getting organized to do homework.
  • 61% of parents would tell the doctor if their child seemed extremely sad for over a month

Here are the reasons parents gave for not discussing emotional and behavioral issues with a doctor:

  • 45% of parents said they did not think behavior problems were medical issues, so they didn’t see any point in raising issues to the doctor.
  • 29% said they prefer to handle behavioral or mood issues privately.
  • 29% of parents would prefer to consult with someone other than a doctor about their concerns.
  • 6% of parents said there wasn’t enough time to discuss their concerns during doctor visits
  • 8% felt the doctor wouldn’t know what to do

Why Parents Should Talk to the Doctor

Emotional and behavioral problems are important issues that should be raised to a doctor. In any given year, up to 20% of all children experience a disorder that impacts their behavior, learning, or mental health.

Doctors need to know what you witness outside of the doctor’s office. A relatively quick exam isn’t likely to reveal problems, like ADHD or depression. Explaining your concerns and asking questions about your child’s development can give a doctor insight into potential risks and warning signs of other problems.

If your child has an underlying issue, like potential ADHD or anxiety, a doctor can make referrals for appropriate services. A child may benefit from anything from occupational therapy to psychological testing. Further evaluation and assessment may be necessary to rule out problems or to establish a clear treatment plan.

How Doctors Address Behavioral Issues

Sometimes there’s a clear link between physical health issues and behavioral issues. For example, a child who throws temper tantrums at bedtime may be having difficulty sleeping. Similarly, a child who experiences frequent stomach aches may actually be experiencing anxiety.

If a pediatrician thinks a child has a mental health problem or behavior disorder, a referral to other treatment providers is often made. Depending on your child’s specific needs, a referral could be made to anyone from an occupational therapist to a psychologist.

A doctor may eventually prescribe medication for ADHD, but may only be willing to do so after talking to a child’s therapist. Or a doctor may want to refer a child for psychological testing before making recommendations about a child’s mood disorder. Pediatricians should be part of a comprehensive treatment team that addresses emotional health or behavior disorders.